Sunrise on the pier was a ritual Mattie and I engaged in, without fail, the morning of our last full day at the beach every year. It was our thin space. A preacher once described thin space to me as that place where your spirit and God are in closest contact. Generally, we're all aware we have a spirit, an essence, that's deep inside us. At your thin space, the veil separating your essence from your being becomes transparent enough that the spirit becomes undeniable. Instead of being a silent voice, your spirit more or less shows itself to you; you know it intimately rather than simply being aware of it.

All of the beach was thin space for Mattie and me. Where we stayed on the Outer Banks was not an arcade-laden, honky-tonk resort spot with some sand and waves that happened to be nearby. It was where, on an island jutting into the ocean, the sea met the sky and the earth; past, present and future converged in an absence of measured time; and what we felt actually became something we could behold.

I had been coming to this stretch of beach since 1976, long before Sandy invited me to join her on family vacations. I didn't meet Sandy until 1989, but by coincidence, we had both fallen in love with the same place. After my first two children died, I even pitched a tent down on the sand near the pier to try to catch my spirit up to my life. When you lose a child, your body keeps moving, but your spirit doesn't want to come along. It drifts behind. At the beach, my spirit told me there's still more there. It allowed me to feel the essence of my children and the presence of God, which put it back in sync with my body and allowed me to go forward.

Now the beach, this pier, was the place where my spirit and Mattie's could talk to each other directly, without anything muffling what got said or what got heard, even between parent and child.

It never mattered whether it was a cloudy sunrise and the sun didn't show. An unrise, as we called such mornings, was just as significant.

We always came down to the pier before 5 a.m., at least a full hour before the sun actually rose. We had to start when the stars were still out, when it was still dark and time was taking a last look backward before moving forthward, as Mattie called it.

That morning, no breeze stirred as we made our way to the edge of the pier. The two of us wheeled out together across the warped wood, slowly, slowly, sounding a soft, almost rhythmic bumpedy-bump on the weathered planks, so we wouldn't be jolted out of our seats.

Mattie's ability to handle the chair on the rickety wood slats was something of a small marvel, considering his wheelchair beginnings. Fine and visual motor skills were never his strong suit, and he had to learn little by little how to navigate with the chair's joystick. When he first started using it, I took him to the first floor of a mall department store and had him circle around while I waited at the juncture of mall and store. I told him not to move out of anybody's way, to just stop where he was if someone came toward him, because he wasn't ready to back up or steer to the side.
Excerpted from MESSENGER by JENI STEPANEK. Published by arrangement with New American Library (NAL), a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright©Jeni Stepanek, 2009.


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